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Testimony on The Peace Corps: 10,000 Volunteers by the Year 2000 by The Honorable Donna Shalala
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Before the House International Relations Committee
March 18, 1998

Mr. Chairman, I am honored to appear before you today to support President Clinton's budget request for the Peace Corps. I appreciate having the opportunity to join Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan, former Peace Corps Director, Senator Paul Coverdell, and five able Members of Congress to urge this Committee to help make it possible for more Americans to serve our country and the world as Peace Corps volunteers.

Some Members of the Committee may wonder why the Secretary of Health and Human Services is testifying before the House Committee on International Relations on behalf of a small foreign assistance agency.

That's a fair question. The reason I am here, Mr. Chairman, is that like Representatives Shays, Farr, Walsh, Hall, and Petri, who testified here earlier, I proudly served as a Peace Corps volunteer. I believe that of all the programs our government supports, the Peace Corps ranks among the most effective.

I still think of myself as a Peace Corps volunteer. My service in Iran from 1962-1964 was one of the most important experiences of my youth. The opportunity to serve as a volunteer in another country, to study another language, to become immersed in another culture and, at the same time, to make a contribution to people had an enormous impact on me, one that shaped the way I view the world and myself. I like to think that in some small way I helped the people of Iran gain a better understanding of what Americans are like.

Let me explain briefly how.

The Peace Corps experience began for me in the spring of my senior year of college. I remember walking across my beautiful, small, Midwestern college campus in southern Ohio wondering whether I should go to law school, work in Washington or join the Peace Corps. Ultimately, the decision was easy. I was a child of my generation, and the Peace Corps offered the opportunity for an extraordinary adventure while serving my country.

I should confess that my family originally opposed my decision to join the Peace Corps. My dad even offered me a car as a bribe to keep me away. My Lebanese grandmother, however, finally settled the issue. "Donna," she said, "is going to the old country-she'll be fine." As I left for Iran, she pressed into my hand a letter written in classical Arabic. "Give this to the head man in the village," she whispered.

When I arrived in Moli Sani, a small village in Iran, I gave the letter to the local mullah. It turned out that my grandmother had written the following in her note: "This is to introduce the daughter of a great sheikh in Cleveland, Ohio. Please put her under your protection." Like the rest of my family, the wise mullah took my grandmother's advice.

I was assigned to teach at the Agricultural College at Ahwaz, and it was a challenge. At our first faculty meeting, the Dean went around the room and called the names of all the men, including the male Peace Corps Volunteers. He skipped me. I went to see him in his office and asked him why he hadn't called my name. He said that he didn't know what to say. He had no experience with female teachers. The dean eventually began calling on me at faculty meetings, however, and the male students, while they still stuck weird things in my teacher's desk, became much more respectful.

The day that I remember most vividly was the day after President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, about half way through my service in the Peace Corps. Depressed at the death of the President who had inspired us to serve, some friends and I were not in the mood to deal with the local beggar when he approached us. But then with a sad smile, he said, "No money. I want to tell you how sad we all are that your young president was assassinated." I was so moved. There, in a remote town halfway around the world, a very sad young Peace Corps volunteer and a poor Iranian beggar embraced, together mourning the death of President John F. Kennedy.

Years later, looking back at my Peace Corps service, I realized that a wise Mullah, an insensitive dean, and students struggling to preserve a traditional society in a modern age had changed me forever. I had become a citizen of the world. Because of the Peace Corps, I was sensitive to cultural differences, comfortable sitting on mud floors talking to tribal leaders, and respectful of the role of religion. I also came to better appreciate the daily struggles of desperately poor people who, in the face of enormous challenges, manage to maintain their sense of dignity and care for their children.

Those were very special years for me. My Peace Corps experience helped to prepare me for my service as Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, President of Hunter College, and Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Even today, as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the skills that I learned to be a successful Peace Corps volunteer --patience, flexibility, determination, cross-cultural sensitivity, and a sense of humor -- continue to influence the way I carry out my duties.

Mr. Chairman, I can only offer you my own perspective about the Peace Corps. But as I travel across this extraordinary country and around the world, as I talk with health professionals, social workers, teachers, and people from every walk of life, I become more convinced that the Peace Corps experience is more important than ever.

As Members of this Committee know, we live in a world that changes much faster than we sometimes wish. We live in a world that is shaped not only by the competition of the global economy, but also by the exchange of ideas. We live in a world that requires us to understand and appreciate people of vastly different backgrounds, languages, and cultures if we hope to remain competitive in the next century. And there are few, if any, other programs -- public or private --that can better prepare our citizens for the world than the Peace Corps.

A few months ago, I had the chance to visit with some Peace Corps volunteers in Thailand who are doing important work in AIDS education. I was reminded of my time as a volunteer in Iran, now 35 years ago. I could see the dedication and professionalism that they brought to their jobs, and the impact that serving as a Peace Corps volunteer was having on them. I left Thailand proud that our government sponsors such a program and convinced that we should do all that we can to open this experience to more of our fellow citizens.

President Clinton has asked Congress to join in a bipartisan effort to make it possible for 10,000 Peace Corps volunteers to serve overseas by the year 2000. Under the leadership of Director Mark Gearan, the Peace Corps is prepared to meet this great challenge. Entering the next century with such a legacy of service would be an enormous achievement for all Americans. The increase in funding that President Clinton has requested for the Peace Corps can only be seen as an investment in the future of our people and our nation. By opening up the Peace Corps to more of our citizens, we will be stronger and the world will have a better understanding of our country.

Again, Mr. Chairman, I urge you and the distinguished Members of this Committee to support the President's budget request for the Peace Corps.

Thank you.

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